Any discussion of the most essential Bay Area films must begin with a nod to the quantity and quality of nonfiction produced here in the past 40 years. That’s neither cheerleading nor jingoism; tally up the Academy Award nominations for these films, their national television broadcasts and presence at international festivals. One could devote a good deal of space to an analysis of the climate and conditions that fostered this output, but, for me, it stems from an atmosphere of community and cooperation fostered historically by and through the Film Arts Foundation, the Saul Zaentz Media Center and Stanford’s renowned doc-oriented graduate film program.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles compiling the key documentaries and narrative features in Bay Area independent filmmaking. Like any pantheon, Hall of Fame, or “Best” list, it is a subjective selection, and invites comment and debate.
Three films that are essential works for understanding San Francisco's tragic and mythic past (which continues to influences the present by attracting countless people every year from less tolerant and less promising corners of the country) are The Times of Harvey Milk, Crumb and The Cockettes. Though these films are invaluable records of events that happened here, they go beyond merely capturing what this place was like at specific points in time. They are definitively and unmistakably San Franciscan in subject, character and outlook; that is, they convey the qualities of liberation, self-invention and creativity. Coincidentally, they also share a respect and affection for first-person testimony.
These are empathetic though not hagiographic oral histories, related by survivors and witnesses, augmented (in two of the three) by extensive use of archival footage and photographs. San Francisco’s status an open-minded and open-hearted city.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
I saw Rob Epstein and the late Richard Schmiechen’s Oscar-winning saga for the first time in the late ’80s, within a couple of years of moving to San Francisco and roughly a decade after the City Hall murders of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by former Supervisor Dan White. This should be required viewing for every transplant to the Bay Area, I remember thinking, and my opinion hasn’t wavered. It’s a biography of a groundbreaking politician whose mark on San Francisco politics and government (as well as California and the nation's) was felt for decades to come, as well as a primer on the Castro’s emergence as a Mecca.
Much of the documentary’s power derivers from the pithiness and immediacy of its interviews. One of the first interviewees we meet is a rough-edged blue-collar union rep who is initially won over by Milk's ability to control a meeting of wound-up gays with personal (and conflicting) agendas. Rather than just relating stories and information, the witnesses share acutely fresh and raw experiences. Schmiechen and Epstein deserve credit for embarking on the film before too much time had elapsed since the shootings and wounds had healed. Overshadowing everything, though, is the shocking, scarring nature of the events themselves.
On the dramatic level, The Times of Harvey Milk is in large measure a true-crime exposé, with the tragedy and horror multiplied by a factor of several hundred thousand people. A crackling narrative that unfolds with pulsing momentum and welcome sensitivity, thanks to Deborah Hoffmann’s adept cutting, it also features a few judiciously placed fades to black that serve as emotional deep breaths.
Terry Zwigoff’s candid and moving character study of the underground artist Robert Crumb stemmed from a rare kind of privileged access. The two had long shared a quirky love for early 20th-century string band music and rare 78s, with Zwigoff (on cello) even joining R. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders for a couple of albums recorded in San Francisco in the 1970s. Their friendship may have convinced Crumb to open his door for Zwigoff’s camera, but the cartoonist had to know that the prickly filmmaker wasn’t interested in making a cutesy hagiography. That is, Zwigoff set out to make the kind of film that he wanted to see.
The upshot is that Crumb reveals himself, and his screwed-up family, without self-censorship or sugarcoating. So we hear all about the nerdy high school outcast who, improbably, fell in with the cool kids in the Haight-Ashbury before and during the Summer of Love. (And, equally improbably, didn’t do drugs.) Crumb appears before us as an acerbic witness to the hedonism and idealism of mid-’60s San Francisco, without the expected patchouli-scented nostalgia.
Crumb gradually, eventually, moved from obsessively detailed counterculture cartoonist to respected and revered iconoclast (God forbid he should ever find comfort in the mainstream) with a concurrent increase in the price of his work. If Crumb was merely a portrait of a slightly anti-social genius with a wicked sense of humor—the artist as self-knowing, uncompromising weirdo—it would have been entertaining and memorable enough.
What pushes the film into pathos, and greatness, is Robert’s agoraphobic brother Charles, who lived for years and years with his aging mother in the same Philadelphia house. Brilliant and self-aware, eternally cursed yet not afflicted with self-pity, Charles provides the film’s emotional core. Furthermore, his inability to escape a wretched upbringing, and the family home, throws Robert‘s awkwardly triumphant journey—of escape, and then self-expression, and success on his terms—into sharp relief.
The Cockettes (2002)
David Weissman and Bill Weber’s exuberant and mournful celluloid kiss also revolves around artists who found their voice on Haight Street in the late ’60s. The Cockettes, a flamboyant musical theater troupe comprised mostly of gender-bending queer hippies, proved far more influential than Robert Crumb, but its notoriety was limited by its premature demise to a narrow stratum of artists, trendsetters and celebrities.
Led by a singular visionary named Hibiscus for whom performance and daily life were one and the same, the Cockettes brought drag out of the shadows and alleys. They infused it with a raucous, lysergic acid diethylamide-tinged blast of celebration, clearing a path to the mainstream for David Bowie, Elton John, Divine, the New York Dolls, RuPaul and Eddie Izzard, to name a few. But unlike their hyper-ambitious descendants, the Cockettes were all about social change, political commentary, artistic laissez-faire and fun. By revisiting and reviving their all-too-brief career, Weissman and Weber honor a host of values, such as communalism, freedom, anarchy, performance, free love, rhinestones and glitter.
The Cockettes is distinguished by impeccable if not innovative filmmaking, blending endearing current interviews and mesmerizing archival film and photos into a deeply satisfying whole. And yet there’s something subversive about the whole enterprise. One wonders: If the Cockettes had been a New York troupe, would they have already been immortality long ago by an ad hoc consortium of heavyweight fashion magazines and museum curators? Instead, they were San Francisco renegades, and ’70s holdovers of an “immature and irresponsible ” peace-and-love hippie ethic that conventional wisdom has decreed died at Altamont in 1969
Michael Fox has covered the Bay Area film scene as a critic and journalist since 1987.
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